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Rust or Lust: The Lexus IS300

Posted in Car Branding, Car Reviews, Favorite Cars, Foreign Cars, Import Review, Lexus, Rust or Lust, Toyota, Used Cars by Corey | August 30th, 2009 | 9 Responses |

In our last Rust or Lust, we determined that despite the odds, the Dodge Neon SRT-4 was worthy of our begrudging, nay, bemused admiration. Of course, that schizophrenic little monster was unnaturally aspirated and similarly unnaturally FWD. Today’s contender is more conventional, sporting a straight-six out front driving the rear wheels. What is it, a Dodge Dart? Think again …

This Week’s Car: the 2001-2005 Lexus IS300

front lead

What exactly is the IS300? It wears a few different hats – you might be familiar with the US version’s BMW 325i-fighting aspirations, but it’s worth noting that the car wasn’t originally designed to be a direct 3-series competitor. Nope, the Toyota Altezza was originally just going to be a nice RWD, sub-luxury Toyota sedan, in line with the similarly-purposed Cresta and Chaser. However, in translation to the US market, where such in-between car genres are less appreciated, the Altezza was transformed into the IS, a luxo-sports sedan poised to fight BMW.


And fight BMW it did. Not in sheer numbers, because it never sold as well as any of its European competitors, but in terms of simply being able to compete on the playing field at all. While Japanese sedans had some successes like the 1989-1994 Nissan Maxima “4DSC” – four-door sports car – they couldn’t match the big boys in refinement or sportiness. No front-wheel drive Integra, no matter how well-balanced, was ever going to go head-to-head with a BMW 325i.

front red

So the audacity of the IS300 should be evident. The 3.0L 2JZ-GE engine is, as I’ve mentioned before, an absolutely wonderful motor. Powering all sorts of Lexuses and Toyotas, it was once described in a publication I can’t remember as “like a sewing machine” with highly precise, refined running. I think maybe “fine Swiss watch” is a better analogy than sewing machine, but hey, to each their own. In the IS, it made 215 HP, a healthy but not revolutionary. That being said, it was more powerful than 2 of its 3 E46 rivals, the 323i and the 328i, but slightly less powerful than the 330i.


Raw power is less important that poise in a sedan like this. The IS300 was lighter than the more powerful 330i, and despite some pronounced understeer, was most definitely a driver’s car. Good feedback from the helm and precise line control (at least until the understeer limit was reached) meant that a twisty road was pretty fun, especially compared to an ES300. Couple that with powerful brakes and an eager engine, and it was not a terrible combination.


But as the understeer might alert you, it also wasn’t really going to take the crown from the 3-series in the driving department. The suspension was also harsh over bumps, the cabin occasionally loud, and the steering was overboosted. That, and until 2002, it was only available with a Tiptronic-style 5-speed automatic that didn’t leave much (including upshifts) up to the driver. Finally, there was the love-it-or-hate-it “chronograph-style” gauge cluster. While it admirably retained a separate tachometer, the speedometer studded with ancillary gauges like some sort of super-size TAG Heuer watch was polarizing at best.

the Verdict: LUST

verdict lust

Does that doom our IS to a terrible fate? No, because most of the faults can be fixed by the aftermarket, or by simply not comparing the car to its rivals. First of all, it’s fundamentally a Toyota built around one of the most highly-developed inline six engines ever produced, so after the human race has vanished the highly evolved cockroaches that will take our place are sure to appreciate its balance of style and refinement. Add some forced induction or suspension, and simply ignore any M3 that ever dances into your sight, and you’ll be happy as a clam.

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9 Responses

  1. Dustin May says:

    A Toyota that is fun to drive? Definitely lust. Too bad we may not see something like this again.

    I’m a Ford fanboy, and I loathe Toyota. The myths about their quality compared to US makers like Ford and GM is, hopefully, going to quickly crumble in light of their current quality issues. However, I have to admit that they do have good engines. Powerful, efficient and smooth.

    Once the myth falls apart, though, what will Toyota be left with? Nothing. At least not for real car people. They will become Oldsmobile.

    It didn’t have to be this way. Cars like the Supra, MR2, and some past Lexus names like IS300 and SC400, could have saved them from being an appliance manufacturer. Sadly, or gladly if you’re a Ford guy like me, Toyota lost that mojo and they have shown no signs of getting it back.

  2. Nathan Redden says:

    Lust. I agree a lot with what Dustin has to say, and I hope people do eventually lose that “halo effect” and see the brand for what it is. But however passe, this thing introduced the Altezza tail lamps and the aftermarket world hasn’t been the same since.

  3. Marc Sketchler says:

    This is my next car. I’ve already decided.

  4. FuzzyPlushroom says:

    Nathan: And those taillamps are probably its greatest sin.

  5. Mark says:

    Lust. That chronograph instrument panel was the most visually arresting collection of gauges since the Jaguar E-Type that looked like it came straight out of a Hawker Hurricane.

    Sorry, Dustin. You may be too young to remember Ford quality of the ’70s, but I do. I remember 1979, the year Ford recalled more cars than it built. I remember the exploding Pintos. I remember the automatic transmissions that jumped from Park to Reverse (I had a good friend that was maimed when her Ford backed over her).

    I worked as a service advisor in an automotive shop; one time a woman brought her Maverick in. If the engine was running you had to hold the shift lever in Park, if you took your hand off the lever it immediately dropped into Reverse. There was no detent at all. She was in tears, as she was a retired school teacher and she’d intended this car to be her last, it had to last her until she passed away, but it woudln’t stay in Park, and the Ford dealer told her there was no problem.

    Toyota quality is no myth; and when they screw up, they man up and take responsibility instead of blaming the owner.

    That’s why the American carmakers have lost me and my generation. We remember the GM diesels. We remember the Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare, and all the rest. And we remember how our parents were treated when they dared complain about the crappy quality of American cars. That’s why we voted Japanese with our wallets.

    The only American product I would buy is a full-size pickup truck, and that only until Toyota gets their act together with the interior styling of the Tundra. After that, sayonara, American carbuilders.

  6. Tim says:

    Its funny that fans of American cars have the time to loathe Toyota at all. Must get boring waiting for your domestic vehicles to get fixed at the dealer, huh? People who own Toyotas are busy driving them and not waiting for them to get fixed. The features and patents that Toyota has brought to the automotive world are 10 years ahead of all other manufacturers. Even the mighty Mercedes Benz is just now trumpeting technology that Toyota already had in their cars 10 years ago. There really is no comparison to make between Toyota vehicles and their followers…errr…rivals. Hybrid technology was originally patented by Toyota until the US government sued them and forced them to release their information to the crappy US auto industry for fear that Toyota would crush all other competitors and become a powerful monopoly.

    Not surprisingly, Toyota became number one anyways a few years later despite this obvious protectionist act. As if General Motors/Ford/Chrysler were even capable of creating vehicles of such quality anyways…

    The IS300 is a manifestation of the engineering/design might of Toyota. They created a car that exceeded the spec of every other car in its class available at the time at a price point several thousand below what the competition offered. Additionally, the styling was light years ahead of anything offered by US auto manufacturers at the time. Think back to 2001. Everyone wanted this cool looking car even if they couldn’t afford it. The IS was, and still is, the quintessential example of what is trendy. “Automotive style” became nothing more than whatever Lexus decided it should be. Other manufacturers were forced to follow suit, or…fail.

    As an example of how far ahead Toyota is compared to automotive manufacturers in the US, read on:

    Many domestic car technicians are familiar with the process of “bleeding” the air out of a cooling system to prevent air bubbles from causing cavitation around the water pump. It is a fairly standard procedure to make sure that there is no air in the cooling system. That is, only if you work on non-Toyotas. In 1984, the 22re was designed with a special “vacuum assist” protocol that automatically modulated the throttle and self-detected flow inefficiencies within the cooling system by looking at phase angle delays between multiple CT sensors and was able to self-bleed the air bubbles out of the cooling system all by itself. Although it sounds like a small and insignificant technological breakthrough, Toyota’s competitors were not able to replicate such a system until the year 2003. And, even then they could not get it right and resorted to creating overpressurized cooling systems to get around the problem instead of addressing it.

    Replaced a water pump in a Ford lately?

    It comes as no surprise and is entirely plausible to the layperson that Toyota is “just another car company” that will eventually be overcome by a competitor, but that is true insofar as one looks at the space shuttle and decides it is “just another plane.”

    • ganjacrazy88 says:

      I wanted this car so bad since it first came out, the styling alone had me lusting over the car its so sharp and agressive yet dramatic, nothing cute about it tho it does have a sinister grin in the front, the overall exterior design is perfect. this cars design shits all over any comparable car at the time with its agressive tail lights and you can spot one at night real easy from its unique stock hid headlights with yellow fogs,and thats just when its stock. simple mods like smoked lights or lowering it can really make a difference. Now the interior design is almost perfect aside from the bmw looking interior amber colored lights, but those are a simple fix by putting blue led bulbs and the car is perfect. another feature i like is the stock nav system sits on the top of the dash and its real easy to swap to aftermarket,and the stock suede /leather seatswhich are better than the full leather seats cuz it doesent get hot nor cold yet keeps you in place. the 5 speed manual has to be one of the slickest shifting sticks ive ever driven it feels like your reallu shifting on top od the gear and it clicks right in perfectly with a clutch thyats just as smooth. the 2nd best thing about the car is the engine so smooth that ive gotten spoiled i notice how harsh some engines are in other cars, its so quiet at idle but when you step on it it has a very deep distinctive growl that only a straight 6 can have, yet it doest sound like a raspy sounding 3 series. another thing i love is its bullit proof reliability and durability this car just keeps on going and going even when its neglected,had a friend that had one and never serviced it for 100k and it kept goin untill he wrecked it, which proved its safe also. im very confident while driving i drive it everywhere even with 195k on mine still runs like the day I got it. the number 1 thing I love about this car is its handling even in stock form it drives like no other car ive driven just its light weight with a tourquey engine
      make it a very entertaining drive tha will put a smile on your face especially when you take off the trac control its so raw and fun off means off on this car not like other cars that won let you, so simple corners around town arefun, hen the steering is tight and right on yet not bmw too tight its just perfect i get alot of looksand comliments yet it dosent scream look at me. I think this is a perfect mix of a fun reliable good looking affordable and i would highly reccomend it to somone who drives alot yet wannts something fun this is the car to get.

  7. TRD says:

    Toyota to this day continues to engineer amazing automobiles. Look no further than the IS-F and the LFA. Top class all the way. Today’s marvels all started with the IS300. The IS300 was light years ahead of itself and so is the LFA.

    • Aphor says:

      As the owner of a ’02 IS300 with a manual tranny, I can tell you that not only is the IS ridiculously fun to drive, but it is tremendously reliable. The handling is very good out of the box and it handles like it is smaller than it is due to the wonderful job of mass centralization Toyota engineers did on the car. However, aftermarket springs with upgraded tires (stock tires = crap) tremendously improve handling and grip. Best of all, with 205K miles on my car, I’ve done absolutely zero unscheduled maintenance under the hood except for modifications. The only repairs have been in the cockpit, I’ve replaced one speaker (warranty), replaced the trunk opening lever under the driver’s seat ($18 from salvage yard), and twice had to uninstall the radio headunit to dislodge jammed CD’s (free). That’s it. Other than tires, brakes, fluid changes, one clutch, and one timing belt, I haven’t done a thing. The best part is the value. I bought it new with Nav, Leather & LSD for well under $30K almost 10 years ago. BTW, contrary to the review, the steering is NOT overboosted. The BMW’s of this era had more steering boost than the IS. Customers and reviewers complained, so BMW later changed it back. The ’06+ IS models (2nd generation) are definitely overboosted, ’01’s thru ’05’s are not.